Return to the Tao – Verse 16: Returning

I’ve recently returned to reading the Tao Te Ching. There truly are few works as simple and profound as this terse yet tremendous tome. I thought the best way to write about it again would be to return to the section I wrote about first last time.

The translation I used last time, Jonathan Star’s, felt almost like a Mahayana Buddhist’s presentation of emptiness and meditation. I found it surprising and compelling. Let’s see how it comes across with some other translations.

Keeping emptiness as their limit
and stillness as their center
ten thousand things rise
we watch them return
creatures without number
return to their roots
returning to their roots they are still
being still they revive
reviving they endure
knowing how to endure is wisdom
not knowing is to suffer in vain
knowing how to endure is to yield
to yield is to be impartial
to be impartial is to be the ruler
the ruler is Heaven
Heaven is the Way
and the Way is long life
a life without trouble
– Trans. Red Pine

Red Pine’s version of this passage feels much closer to what you’d expect of Taoist meditation — cultivating stillness. The stillness itself is what causes the energy and vitality of Heaven to stir (let the seeming contradiction of that hit you – stillness is the cause of great motion). It’s “turning the light around” as put in The Secret of the Golden Flower. This gives an example of a cosmology in action. Returning to Tao is returning to the creator of all. We might question the interpretation of “long life” as the immortal alchemy of the later Celestial Masters because it seems like this could have a much simpler spiritual significance — this approach to life in accordance with the Way may simply be fuller: more at ease and healthy. This is not necessarily due to some esoteric magic but could be seen as being from living in resonance with the Way of existence. The distinction is subtle, I admit, but the point is that we don’t need elaborate systems with hierarchies and three-part progressions of essences (which is where internal alchemy takes the ideas of passages like this), rather a simple return to stillness and emptiness. This is an elegant philosophical expression of our place in the universe – it needs no further esotericism.

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Let’s compare this with the translation of Addiss and Lombardo:

Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
Enlightenment.

Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to Tao.

Tao endures
Your body dies.

There is no danger.
-Trans. Adidas & Lombardo

This translation feels both less cryptic and somehow less deep. In reading it, I feel like some aspect of Lao Tzu’s thought is a bit farther away, although the whole is more beautifully expressed. At the same time, I find the progression at the end to be more compelling. With Red Pine’s translation, I feel that the bigger picture of cosmology/relationship to Tao is clearer. The nuances of returning to the roots are better expressed there without the vagueness of “going back to the ordinary,” but the Te of what this relationship means for the practitioner is clearer here. A proper relationship with Tao – living in accordance with the Way – is enlightenment. Living otherwise is a blindness that creates evil. If we compare this idea of “evil” with Buddhism, we could say that insight into the Truth of things – Dharma – allows us to live properly and no longer create our own suffering. I find these two surprisingly close. Keep this in mind as we go further.

This proper relationship with Tao opens the mind (the wisdom of seeing as things are – we may take this mind opening as a receptivity to continue the path of enlightenment, to uphold wisdom, focusing on a priming of the ongoing process). The open mind leads to compassion – a heartfelt action of support for others. That leads to nobility – the elegant stature of the ruler (as is made clear in comparison with Red Pine’s translation). This is a greater way of being a human being: a virtuous (Te) being. That leads to transcending the human as heavenliness, and that leads to Tao. Thus, stillness and emptiness begin a transformation that flows from wisdom to loving action to transcendence to the Source.

Notice again that the closing lines haunt us with one last beautiful statement. The transcendence hinted at here in the progression and in the final lines about death is not necessarily a transcendence of the eternal life of the soul (i.e. something more in line with Internal Alchemy’s aims). It could rather be (and I feel more compellingly so) read as the recognition that the Tao is the ten thousand things. With Red Pine’s translation – the ten thousand things come out of stillness and then return to it: they are born and then they die. However, this hints at the conclusion: they were never actually separate from it at any point. Cultivating stillness allows us the wisdom to see that our body is Tao and is not Tao (in the sense that our death is not the death of the whole); not only does it allow us to see it – it allows us to sense it, to live it. The death of the body is the death of the body, but it is not the death of Tao. Tao lives through the body as one of the ten thousand things and then returns to Tao to become something else. Great life cultivates the energy of Tao in life; death is merely the Tao taking a form back into its roots — a form that it was all along. There is no danger – no you to die at all in a much greater sense; rather, the Tao that you are part of continues to go on and “you” shall return to its roots.


May this bring greater depth of meaning to this passage for you. May it help you find your own stillness and emptiness so that you may return to the roots of Tao.

Gassho!

Mindfulness: The Great Challenge

Mindfulness doesn’t live and die on the cushion.
It’s a journey, an opportunity,
In every moment.
I can be here, present:
Composed and compassionate
Serene and serendipitous
Open and observant
Or I can be lost, confused:
Reactive and restricted
Selfish and selective
Dormant and dogmatic.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching §64, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Sage worries not about the journeys or tales of yesterday. Nor does he lose sight of the beginning step while looking at the future destination beyond the horizon. Knowing both, he steps forward, feeling every inch of ground in this step–right here, right now. The Sage’s secret wisdom?–This step is the only step. Each step is the beginning step. Each step is the whole journey. The only step to take is the one underfoot right now. The only journey is the current movement of the leg and foot, and there is no greater miracle than this. The Sage takes this step with awareness and gratitude–not lost, elsewhere, and not attached to any outcome.

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The present is direct and straightforward. Your experience of it is heightened through mindfulness. When you are mindful of your breath in meditation, when you mindful of your thoughts, or when you are mindful of going from the practice of meditation to dealing with the kitchen sink, all those situations are in the present. You don’t borrow ideas from the past, and you don’t try to fundraise from the future. You just stay on the spot, now.

That may be easy to say, but it’s not so easy to do. We often find it satisfying to have a reference point to what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past. We feel more relaxed when we can refer to past experiences to inform what is happening now. We borrow from the past and anticipate the future, and that makes us feel secure and cozy. We may think we are living in the present, but when we are preoccupied with the past and future, we are blind to the current situation.

Living in the present may seem like quite a foreign idea. What does that even mean? If you have a regular schedule, a nine-to-five job, you cycle through your weekly activities from Monday to Friday, doing what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. If something out of the ordinary occurs, something that is completely outside of the routine of your Monday-to-Friday world, it can be quite disconcerting.

We are bewildered when something unexpected pops up. A flea jumps on your nose. What should you do? You swat at it or you ignore it if you can. If that doesn’t work, then you search for a memory from the past to help you cope. You try to remember how you dealt with the last flea that landed on you. Or you may try to strategize how you’ll prevent insects from bothering you in the future. None of that helps much. We can be much more present if we don’t pay so much attention to the past or expectations of the future. Then, we might discover that we can enjoy the present moment, which is always new and fresh. We might make friends with our fleas.
-Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action, pp. 46-47.


May this inspire you to mindful presence in this moment.

Gassho!

 

 

A Musing on “Wu Wei”

Here’s another trip through the musings of Morning Pages. Enjoy!


Anyway, there is a lot to be thankful for in this moment. I’m in a gorgeous part of the world. I have great coffee at hand as well as delicious Greek yogurt. I’m young. I’m smart, and I have the good fortune of being able to learn of the Dharma. There is no time to waste getting caught up in hormonal chaos. I could die at any moment. Practice is paramount.

That makes me think about wu wei. Most think of this as inaction or a bit more subtly, “doing without doing”. The thing is, it doesn’t mean “doing nothing”. It’s more like a rethinking of proper action. For the most part, we think of ourselves as Masters of the Universe, and by the power of Greyskull, anything that opposes our sense of the way things should be must be smote through “MY” action as agent who shapes the universe to “MY” will. The Tao Te Ching says multiple times that those things built by force and will come to an early end. They come to be from delusional thought–a cosmological navel gazing that puts undue importance on my place in the universe and overlooks how I am a part of it all–it’s a view that aspires for permanence, security and grandness. “I”, in truth, am just a momentary coming together of stardust, dancing and shining on this small orb in a backwater solar system. “My existence” lasts for what would be less than a heartbeat from the universe’s perspective.

Unlike this agent-centered push to dominate nature, wu wei is action that flows along with the universe’s unfolding. It is action, but action that correctly sees “my” place in the universe and acts along with the universe, rather than against it.

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May this help you see how to act in accordance with the Truth of the universe–wu wei.

Gassho!

Neither This Nor That

Me, myself, and mine
Are not the heart of the divine
“My” Truth? Do you comprehend
What this phrase would intend?
Between extremes–meaninglessness
Or metaphysical seriousness
We swing on conceptual dichotomy
Really invokes experiential lobotomy
Either/or, black or white?
Can All be measured in wrong or right?
Is value so readily inherent?
Is Truth just personally apparent?
Must we choose eternalism or nihilism?
Absolutism and relativism–a schism
De-cide–roots meaning to cut apart
Conceptual delimiting of ideological art
The Way walks through the abyss
The dividing line between–just this
Neither here nor there, this nor that
Wisdom lies not in the distinction I shat
Presence/Oblivion: two sides, same coin
These are not separate–nothing to join

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After a storm at sea the sailor heads for home and quiet harbor.
Tossed by indecision
we must return our unsettled mind to the center.
Tao is within us all.
With many voices it has but one beautiful song;
many aspects but only one essence.
Though we are not bound, we are always connected.

Buddhahood is meditation;
with constant attentiveness our mind travels far:
into the highest hills and all over the world.
Elusive, delicate–we see the cosmos is empty
as well as full.
Nothing beyond, Nothing in hand.
Beauty, spirit, Tao–all one.

–§1 in “Everyday Practice” from The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao by Loy Ching-Yuen

Without words, we understand no-mind;
without shape, we understand true nature.
With relaxed mind, we grasp the meaning of Tao;
with the boundless Way, we understand truth.

–§3 in “Everyday Practice” from The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao by Loy Ching-Yuen

May this help you see beyond dualism and the relativistic pat on the back that can come with your own Stories–that is “My Truth”.

Gassho!

Cutting Through the Mask

Om mani padme hum…
Repeat again and again…
1000s of times…
Working for the liberation
Of all sentient beings
From Suffering
From Delusion
Goes on and on…

Can you hope to help
If you are still stuck
In your own delusion?
Compassion in action:
Om mani padme hum
Begins with seeing,
How “I” become special
“I” am advanced.
“I” will become enlightened
“I” am nearly a guru!
Such sentiment perpetuates
Delusion, is the core of
Delusion, is the beating,
Black heart of Separation

Suffering begins with
This separation that creates
“Your” mask.
A constructed aegis
To ward off inevitable Death
The black heart of Selfishness
Beats in a network of
Ego’s arterial stories.

Let go of such
Spiritual materialism
Compassion begins:
Cut through your “self”,
Open your heart
Let it beat
The ebb and flow of The Universe,
Tao
, resides in emptiness
Feel that you
And others
Are not two.

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It is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.
-Jamgön Kongtrul, as quoted in “Machik’s Complete Explanation”

When there is no perceived difference
between square and circle,
light and dark in our minds,
we have attained the profound truth of Tao.
Everything in heart should be as one:

Emptiness
Emptiness

-Loy Ching-Yuen, “The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao”

“Whatever arises”

This is another passage taken from a recent morning pages session. Again, I’ve skipped past some initial words to get to the insightful part.


So, I feel a bit tired this morning–also due to a couple extra hours at work last night. However, I’m glad to show up again today, no matter what arises. “Whatever arises” is a mantra I’ve had in mind a lot recently. Ultimately, I feel that it captures the liberation from samsara of the Buddha way. The Buddha resides in the burning house. The Buddha’s path doesn’t lead to some special place beyond the world we live in or transcend it through some sort of sleight of hand: appearing here but residing elsewhere. No, the Buddha experiences nirvana in samsara. He merely presides with joy, with loving-kindness, calm-abiding, no matter what arises. In explaining equanimity like this to friends, they misunderstood it as complacency. I understand why one might think that, but that’s not it. The Buddha is not telling us to not walk a path, to not cultivate certain ways or positions. Reading The Dhammapada quickly makes it clear that the Buddha way requires an ongoing engagement that prefers the greater joy over the lesser. However, a great part of this joy is in meeting the challenges of change and the snares of Mara with a peaceful smile–nonattachment to conditions being any particular way. Come what may; whatever arises.

It may be easy to rail against this again, but a look at the Tao Te Ching or even the Stoic works of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would bring us to similar, if not the same, conclusions. Equanimity does not mean non-action or passivity: complacency. Imagine Buddha walking across India again and again for 45 years after his enlightenment, teaching everywhere he went. Imagine Marcus Aurelius writing his “Meditations” at night on the battlefront. Wu wei, the right action of skillful means, requires seeing reality as it is–the unfolding flux of Tao, emptiness’ dance–and flowing with that change without attachment. This is doing without doing: not forcing the world, rather acting along with whatever arises. It’s not inaction or reactivity; rather, it’s working in accordance with nature, a properly attuned action with Tao. This is a key to the Way of the Sage, the Way of the Buddha, and the Way of the Lover of Wisdom (a philosopher).

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For comparisons with the comments on wu wei at the end, look at my posts on the Tao Te Ching, particularly: Tao a Day–Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature, Tao a Day–Verse 26: Inner Virtues, and Tao a Day–Verse 63: Doing without Doing.

May this inspire you to be at peace, whatever arises.

Gassho!

Waking Up Now, Not Waiting for “It” to Be All Over

The following set of morning pages were written about hearing Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”. I’m taking out some of the more personal rigamarole to get straight to the point.


It was spun crap about living in the moment. How is that position always turned into a justification for hedonism? Compile a set of moments that you want. Continue to do so. That’s the path to happiness. Such is the implied conclusion of that point of view. In comparison, I’m drawn to a Taoist-Buddhist-Stoic idea of happiness. It’s easy to show up to the moments you like, but if that’s the case, happiness is and always will be externally dependent.

The Sage, the Buddha, the Wise: these individuals don’t require conditions to be just right to be happy. They have cultivated an internal wealth that is not dependent on the schemes of the ego to get everything just right. Rather, they realize, as Lao Tzu tells us in the Tao Te Ching that everything changes, so controlling conditions through force cannot last.

So “waiting to be woken up when it’s all over” is always going to be lost (during and after) and never will realize it. It’s lost in the ego’s search for deliverance–a way out. The “all over” is the escape of better, wanted conditions. The Sage smiles upon such inherent delusion. S/he just lives with joy, no matter what comes–a blooming lotus in the muddy waters.

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For comparison, read my posts on similar points including: Tao a Day: Verse 26 – Inner Virtues, Path of the Dharma: The Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”, and Nothing to Do.

May this bring you the resolve to cultivate your own inner strength, your own wakefulness, and your own pure heart without relying on the world to give you the never existent stability of “just right”.

Gassho!

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